The bright colours make polyanthus popular. Over the past few years, however, colours have begun to change, with flowers in subtle gradations of colour towards the yellow centre are beginning to appear. Still others look like wild primroses or show ranges of pale shades: gradations of pink or blue, sophisticated misty grey tones, or very dark with light edges. Yet others have dark leaves, which can make a striking contrast with the flower colour. Clearly, polyanthus breeders are becoming increasingly creative. Traditionally, polyanthus are sold as temporary plants for an end-of-winter splash. However, they are perennials and, if properly managed, will last many years.

Historically, the modern polyanthus is the result of three European species crossing with each other: the familiar primrose (Primula vulgaris), the cowslip (P. veris) and the rarer oxlip (P. elatior); a fourth species from the Caucasus, P. juliae, has also had an influence. All primula can grow at low temperatures, which enables them to make a lot of growth in short periods of favourable weather during the winter; the name primula is derived from the Latin for “first”, meaning the first to flower in spring. Another characteristic is a tendency to become summer dormant. Plants come back to life in September, and put in a couple of months of growth before winter.

Being easy to propagate and grow, during the early 19th century polyanthus fever spread to just about anyone who had a garden, although the plants were still usually grown in pots. Hundreds of varieties were selected, on the basis of minute distinctions of colour and shape; during this period it was the most commonly grown ornamental plant. Credit: The Telegraph.